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Two books unveil details, from sex to silverware


Read together, "The Kennedy Women" and "The Other Mrs. Kennedy" are an almost overwhelming catalog of tragedy, dysfunction and scandal, along with endless details on clothes, china and silver patterns. Inevitably, gossip columns have started to seize on what is new, emphasizing the more sensational revelations. These include:

* Adultery: According to "The Kennedy Women," Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy not only ignored the philandering of Joseph Kennedy Sr.; she advised her daughters-in-law that that was their lot as well. Laurence Leamer reveals, however, that Jean Kennedy Smith, after enduring the affairs of husband Stephen, had a discreet relationship with Alan Jay Lerner (the "Camelot" lyricist, for those interested in keeping score of small ironies). Mrs. Smith, now widowed and the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, has denied this. Mr. Leamer says: "I stand by my story."

Mr. Leamer also notes that Joseph Kennedy Sr. didn't mind if his favorite daughter-in-law, Jackie, were to have an affair with Oleg Cassini. He simply instructed Mr. Cassini to be discreet, saying, "The worst thing, to my mind, would be to have the perception and not the reality." Mr. Cassini and Jacqueline Kennedy apparently preferred to have neither.

In "The Other Mrs. Kennedy," Jerry Oppenheimer writes about Bobby Kennedy's affair with Marilyn Monroe but adds that "it wasn't his first, nor would it be his last fling with another woman." An unnamed friend of Ethel's said Bobby Kennedy felt "honor-bound" to sample his friends' wives.

* Alcoholism: It sometimes seems as if the Kennedy-Skakel clans could form their own 12-step groups. Joan Kennedy laments, in "The Kennedy Women," that she became the family's token alcoholic, even though some of her sisters-in-law had drinking problems as well. Ethel Kennedy, mindful of the toll alcohol had taken on her family members, tried to avoid it, although she began drinking heavily after Bobby's death, according to "The Other Mrs. Kennedy."

* Tragedy and scandal: Most families would find it hard to live through just one of the incidents the Kennedys and Skakels have survived. Fatal plane crashes figure prominently alongside better-known incidents -- two assassinations, Chappaquiddick, the rape trial (and acquittal) of William Kennedy Smith.

And while the Kennedys had no shortage of their own scandals, Mr. Oppenheimer writes that Ethel worried constantly that the Skakels would embarrass the family she had embraced. On her side, there were two murders and a case of arson. In one of the murders, no one has ever been charged, but a Skakel has long been suspected, and the story was rehashed during Mr. Smith's rape trial.

* Similar roots: The Kennedys and the Skakels were rich, large, Irish Catholic families created by self-made men. Yet they had little use for one another, as Mr. Oppenheimer writes, and he theorized that the Skakels cooperated with his book largely because they felt Ethel had forsaken them to become a Kennedy.

The families' paths had crossed often over the years. Bobby first dated Ethel's sister, Pat, Mr. Leamer writes, and Ethel campaigned for his attentions much as the Kennedy men campaigned for office. Mr. Oppenheimer says she first set her sights on Bobby's older brother, Jack, but was told she'd have a better chance with Bobby.

Once she had married into the family, Ethel Kennedy did her best to win her mother-in-law's affection. According to "The Other Mrs. Kennedy," she set out to prove her worth by having more children than Rose, who had borne nine. Ethel ultimately had 11 children -- one, Rory, born after Bobby's death in 1968.

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